A POETRY HANDBOOK…

A Poetry Handbook: a Prose Guide to Understanding and Writing Poetry.
by
Mary Oliver

A poem is a mystical document. [p. 1]

“The part of the psyche that works in concert with consciousness and supplies a necessary part of the poem – the heat of a star as opposed to the shape of a star, let us say – exists in a mysterious, unmapped zone: not unconscious, not subconscious, but cautious. It learns quickly what sort of courtship it is going to be. Say you promise to be at your desk in the evenings, from seven to nine. It waits, it watches. If you are reliably there, it begins to show itself – soon it begins to arrive when you do. But if you are only there sometimes and are frequently late or inattentive, it will appear fleetingly, or it will not appear at all.” [p. 8]

Semivowel are consonants that can be imperfectly sounded without a vowel so that at the end of a syllable they may be protracted. As l, n and z in al, an and az. The semivowels are f, h, j, l, m, n, r, s, v, w, x, y, z and c and g soft. But w or y at the end of a syllable are vowels. And the sound of c, f, g, h , j, s or x can be protracted only as an aspirate, or strong breath. Four of the semivowels – l, m, n and r – are termed liquids, on account of the fluency of their sounds. Four other semivowels – v, w, y and z – are likewise more vocal than the aspirates.

A mute is a consonant that cannot be sounded at all without a vowel, and which at the end of a syllable suddenly stops the breath, as k, p and t in ak, ap and at. There are eight mutes – b, d, k, p, q, t and c and g hard. Three of these – k, g, and c hard – sound exactly alike. B, d and g hard stop the voice less suddenly than the rest. Mutes may be “calmed down” by following them with a vowel or a liquid. P-l-ease [liquid]. B-e [vowel]. Q-u-iet [vowel].

A mute preceded by a vowel is brittle and explosive. Sh-u-t. U-p!

Analysis of “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening by Robert Frost Poem.

Whose woods are these are I think I know.
His house is in the village through;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

Analysis: The initial four lines are rife with w”s – whose, woods, know, will, watch, woods; and th”s – these, think and though; f is there – fill; and v. – village. Three sets of double ll”s; village, will and fill.

The heaviness of the vowels is increased by the use of diphthongs. [A diphthong is a gliding monosyllabic speech sound (as the vowel combination at the end of toy) that starts at or near the articulatory position for one vowel and moves to or toward the position of another.]

The two words that end with a mute – think and up – are set within the lines and thus are softened. All other mutes are softened within the words themselves.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

Analysis: The sounds of the whispery introduction of the horse, the interior monologue, no louder than snow falling, are interrupted with little raps of sharper sound – not mallets, not that heavy, but different.

The sound of think with its lightly snapping k this time followed not by a softer sound but by the snippet it and queer, a echo of the k, makes it altogether livelier than the first stanza.

Stop is a rap of a sound, then it is quieted by the rest of the line.

After lake there is a momentary chasm, a fracture of silence out of which a different kind of electricity flows before the line swings; and The adjective darkest repeats the k once more, two taps of disquietude.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound”s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

Analysis: In the third stanza the reversal takes place. Instead of the guttural mutes being quieted – swallowed up in a splash of softer sounds – they rise up among and after the soft sounds, insisting to be heard.

The first hard g in the poem occurs on the first line of this third stanza: “He gives his harness bells a shake…”

Though the g is instantly quieted by the two h”s, the moment of introspection is almost over, and the ear anticipates this with bells and with the word shake – louder than lake, more forceful.

In the following line the k repeats in the very meaningful word ask (the traveler is not the only asking creature in the poem); and this line as well as the following line of the third stanza end with mutes.

Altogether, in this stanza, we have shake, mistake, seep and flake, while in the two stanzas preceding, there has been only one such moment (the word lake in line 7).

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